A Question of Honour?

Heinrich Stephani, Wie die Duelle, diese Schande unseres Zeitalters, auf unsern Universitäten so leicht wieder abgeschafft werden könnten [How duels, this disgrace of our age, could easily be abolished at our universities]

Published by Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus in Leipzig, in 1828


Today is 8 February 1837. The sun rises above the Black River. At its bank, 37-year-old Pushkin faces the man who has been chasing his wife for weeks. Russian society is gossiping – not about the stalker but about the famous poet who has done nothing so far to protect the honour of his wife. But now the two men are facing each other, both with a pistol in their right hand. The first shot is fired. Pushkin is hit in the abdomen. The genius dies two days later from the consequences of the duel.

Those who read Pushkin know that the poet was an independent thinker. Why did this intelligent man risk his life instead of searching for another way to get out of the conflict?

The duel between Alexander Pushkin and Georges d’Anthès.

Academic Fencing

Duelling wasn’t anything new in the 19th century. Noblemen had been protecting their honour with sabres since the end of the 15th century. Just like the nobility, officers and students had the right to bear arms and were thus what was called “capable of giving and demanding satisfaction”. While fencing was part of the standard training of officers and noblemen, students had to figure out for themselves where to learn it. That’s why many student corps offered a so-called “Paukboden”, halls in which young men could learn the basics of handling sabres and épées.

Alcohol, sharp weapons and an excess of testosterone, it’s hardly surprising that there were “accidents”. In order to protect at least those outside the universities from the academic rowdies, carrying a weapon as a student in public was prohibited in Germany in 1790. And when the first German “Burschenschaften” (a special type of student corporation) were founded after the “Wars of Liberation” against Napoleon, they revived the old tradition of academic fencing in a ritualized form in the context of student’s leisure activities.

Silly Boy and Caitiff

Until the middle of the 19th century, an “insult” was needed if one student wanted to fight another student. Of course, not an actual insult. The words “silly boy” were enough, and a duel was quickly arranged between the students. For making such appointments between members of different student corps, there were special pubs, so-called “Kontrahier-Kneipen”.

Adolf Kussmaul, the famous doctor and inventor of the stomach pump who had joined the Corps Suivia in Heidelberg as a student in 1841, described in his memoirs what happened in these pubs: “In the evening, at the appointed hour, all corps moved in bright crowds from their pubs to the arena for cheerful insulting (= they found an opponent by insulting him), each corps sat down at the table that their “foxes” had occupied in advance. … A fellow stood up and shouted a scoffing battle cry to a worthy warrior at one of the adversarial tables. If the opponent was witty, he replied with scorn; if not, which was the rule, he immediately demanded a duel. After this first “Contrahage” (= appointment for academic fencing), battle cries were shouted from all tables. The air buzzed with “silly boys”, and in between, some severe “caitiffs” were hurled. The Iliad’s heroes would have enjoyed the goings-on.”

The duel was fought afterwards according to exactly determined rules. Fighting continued until the first “Anschiss” was inflicted, a bleeding wound that had to be at least one inch long and go through all three layers of skin.

You can imagine that things didn’t always stop at that point.

The Munich Incident

The newspapers constantly reported about the young victims of this academic custom. An incident that occurred in the winter of 1828 was particularly hotly debated. A magazine resumed the event with the following words: “On 26 January, in the house of a brewer, 21-year-old M. Zettelmaist from Burghausen, whose father works for the revenue administration, was stabbed to death. – The culprit, who belongs to a commonly respected and esteemed family was handed over to court by his own father and several students have also been imprisoned. The mother of the murdered man is said to have gone mad when she heard the news.”

A Member of the District School Board from Bavarian

Maybe it was this incident that caused former Bavarian church and district school board member Heinrich Stephani to write his polemic “Wie die Duelle, diese Schande unsers Zeitalters, auf unsern Universitäten so leicht wieder abgeschafft werden könnten” [How duels, this disgrace of our age, could easily be abolished at our universities], which we had the pleasure to acquire for the library of the MoneyMuseum in Zurich in January 2020 at the Stuttgart Rare Book Fair.

Stephani, who had a doctorate in theology, was a rationalist, an enthusiastic advocate of the intellect and the Enlightenment. He knew many of the great minds of his time in person, such as Schiller, Goethe, Fichte and Kant as well as Pestalozzi and Lavater, to name just a few. During the era of Montgelas he reformed the secondary schools in Augsburg, Eichstätt and Ansbach as Bavarian church and district school board member according to the latest educational ideas. But Montgelas was overthrown in the January of 1817. And in the same year, Pietist representatives of the Church managed that Stephani was removed from office – allegedly because of corruptibility.

Nevertheless, only two years later he was elected to the Bavarian assembly of the estates, an office he held for eight years. So we must be aware that his book against duelling is no theoretical recommendation of an unworldly priest but a clear guide for action written by a pragmatic ex-politician and administrative expert.

The Dispute about Duelling

Stephani’s book was widely discussed throughout Germany. And it had an impact. In 1836, the first fraternity was founded that resolutely did without duelling: the Uttenruthia of Erlangen. In this way, Christian students offered an alternative to the nationally minded, usually fencing student corporations. Soon there were many corps that practiced fencing in their training halls but rejected duelling on principle.

Duelling as a Civic Institution

And while students searched and found alternatives to the duel, the bloody trade of honour became the status symbol of the rising bourgeoisie. After all, not all citizens were “capable of giving and demanding satisfaction”, only the members of the “refined society” were. But who belonged to this “refined society”. Academic middle-class intellectuals, who had learned to fence as students, surely did. Reserve officers as well. Who else? How much money did a non-academic civilian need to earn the privilege of being killed in a duel according to every trick in the book?

Being capable of demanding satisfaction became a sought-after status symbol and the duel itself a question of self-perception. Even those who opposed this nonsense in theory had no choice – they had to answer an insult with a provocation and a provocation with the participation in a duel. And thus people fought duels even if they were called Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ferdinand Lassalle, Max Weber, Otto von Bismarck or Werner von Siemens.

By the way, Pushkin had also repeatedly advocated against duelling in his works, nonetheless, he saw no possibility of refusing a “demand of satisfaction”.

Duels in Literature

Thus, duelling was a horrible reality and an increasing amount of important authors used it as key topic of their novels and dramas in order to make people think about it. With his work Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane wanted to hold up a mirror to the high middle class by making the duel between Effi’s husband Innstetten and her former lover Major Crampas the novel’s culmination. All protagonists of the novel lose something because of this pointless duel: Crampas loses his life, Innstetten 10 years of his life and his beloved wife, and Effi loses her family. And even though Innstetten is aware of this, he cannot refuse to fight for reasons of honour.

Or the tragic play “Liebelei” by Arthur Schnitzler dealing with a young man falling in love with a sweet girl who loves him back and yet has to experience that her “Fritz” gets shot for another woman.


If it had been up to the poets, duels would have been abolished much earlier. But literature failed to achieve this. Only the social changes following World War I made the duel become obsolete because of the demilitarisation of the society and the new civilian lifestyle.


We bought this book at the Stuttgart Rare Book Fair 2020 from the antiquarian bookshop Rainer Schlicht, Berlin and Bayreuth.

You can see for yourself the measures proposed by Heinrich Stephani to abolish duelling at universities.

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